The elephant doctor

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Dang Nang Long and one of his elephants H'Tuk in Dak Nong Province

Dang Nang Long was raised around elephants.

The 43-year-old's father was an elephant trainer, and his mother an elephant trader.

He fell in love with the animals at an early age and has always maintained that elephants need love and care just like humans.

As director of the province's Lak Lake Eco-Tourism Center, he cared for the center's elephants, but could never turn his eyes from the problems other elephants in the central province of Dak Lak were having.

His journey towards becoming an elephant doctor, with no official training, started when he saw how sick and ailing elephant Kham Bun being treated at the Vietnam Circus Troupe in 2006.

The elephant had been caught in a trap and suffered leg injuries. At that time, the government had banned the keeping of wild elephants, so the animal was transferred to the circus, which according to Long did not take care of the elephant properly, leaving it to get weaker and die.

He said he knew there wasn't much life left in the beast at the time, and sure enough, it died a few months later.

"People don't know that elephants are different from any other animals. Medicine alone is not enough to cure them.

"The secret medicine that I often teach younger elephant trainers is to love the elephants like oneself."

He said besides quick medical intervention, sick and injured elephants need their owners by their side, caressing and talking to them.

In June 2007, Long abandoned his job at the tourism center for days while he lived with a local family treating their sick elephant. He was there caressing the injured elephant beside its owners, and providing herbal medicine.

In 2008, many Dak Lak elephants suffered after having their tails cut off. A traditional belief in the area holds that wearing a ring made from elephant tail hair can cure any disease.

By that time, Long already had seven his own elephants, three of which had their tails cut.

He spent nearly four months to help each one recover.

But he not only fixed the animals, he also fought back.

Le Van Ha, who took over Long's position as the tourism director, said Long began going around pretending that he was looking to buy elephant tail in order to track down the attackers

He and local authorities caught a gang of elephant tail thieves just before they were about to attack more elephants in July 2010. The gang then received jail time.

It was then that Long became the province's unofficial elephant keeper: master and doctor of the beasts at the same time.

He quit his job at the tourism center to focus on elephants full time in 2011.

He said that now the biggest problem facing local elephants is not criminals, but the animals' owners themselves.

Most owners use the elephants to carry things and Long said that while he's sympathetic to poor owners who have to force their elephants to carry too much weight, there are plenty of rich people who consider their elephants "money printers" that they can use until the animals die of fatigue and exhaustion.

"One time, I was on a vacation and I saw a skinny and weak elephant tied down in a barren area. It felt like I myself was being tied up. My throat was bitter and I could not finish my lunch, so I ended the vacation early and left," Long said.

The "doctor" is now looking for people to continue taking care of the elephants after he dies. He also wants to reserve some protected land for the elephants so that they can mate.

For the first plan, he has already spent hundreds of millions of dongs building a common house for regular meetings between local elephant trainers.

"I have adopted many young boys and given each of them an elephant to take care of. Maybe someday, one of them would follow me to be responsible for all local elephants," Long said.

As for the second plan to establish some protected land for elephants in the area, Long said he's still a long way off.

A survey co-conducted by Vietnamese historian Duong Trung Quoc showed that the population of domesticated elephants in Dak Lak, which has the largest group of the animal in the country, is shrinking to one tenth from 500 in 1985.

The survey suggests that domesticated elephants in the province will remain a heritage in 20 years.

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